Operation Libyan Freedom

Libyan anti-government rally in Benghazi

The stated political aim of NATO and the coalition now conducting military operations over Libya authorized by U.N. Security Resolution 1973 to “use all necessary measures” to protect civilians is to end the rule of Moammar Gadhafi and his regime.

But when queried about the seeming inconsistency between the military objective of protecting civilians and the political objective of removing Gadhafi, the Obama administration answers for the time being are that these are early days and one should exercise patience before drawing judgment about this perceived mal-alignment of ends and means.

Fair enough. But we have heard this tune before. The first time was in the 1999 Kosovo air campaign that lasted for 78 days before the threat of a ground attack forced Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his army.

Second was Operation Iraqi Freedom and the failure to deal with the subsequent occupation of Iraq. As we bungled the difficult job of turning Iraq into a functioning pluralistic state after smashing Saddam Hussein’s army in what a former Bush supporter termed a military “cakewalk,” what happens next in Libya isn’t an idle question.

Clearly, NATO and the Obama administration won’t address that question now because no one knows much about the nature of a Libyan occupation let alone what happens in the less likely event rebel forces overthrow Gadhafi and Sons Inc.

The best outcome is for Gadhafi to leave in a way that allows transition to a better (and still imperfect) government with at least pluralistic if not democratic leanings.

Unfortunately, that is unknowable until it happens. So, NATO and U.S. leaderships are very much victims of the unpredictable and potential hostages to time. If Gadhafi is as tenacious in staying as many who know him predict he will be, the mujahedin aphorism that the Russians had all the wristwatches while Afghans had all the time might prove just as true in Libya.

Under these circumstances, at some point, the option of using ground forces to remove Gadhafi as the United States did in 1989 with the then leader of Panama, Manuel Noriega must arise no matter how much President Barack Obama and NATO leaders resist even considering such an operation.

For those who believe the White House will remain adamant on deploying ground forces to another Arab and Muslim country so as not to intensify anti-Americanism and anti-NATO-ism, the Obama administration has reversed itself on major issues. Closing Guantanamo Bay is a prime example, forced on the White House by Congress. With the prospect of Gadhafi around for the long haul, similar political pressures for his removal will intensify.

Planning then for the possibility of a combined ground assault would seem a prudent and necessary contingency.

As in Desert Shield and Storm, the use of Arab or Muslim troops is crucial even if only for the post-war stabilization period and should be considered as well. The corollary is the need for civilian planning for the transition from the Gadhafi dictatorship to a better and fairer, if not democratic form of governance — something we didn’t do in practice in Iraq. And if Kosovo taught anything, the threat of ground forces and post-war planning might indeed be the straws breaking the camel’s back — in this case forcing Gadhafi to stand down.

Given coalition animosity toward using ground forces, and the not-unreasonable argument calling for patience, how might this contingent planning idea be implemented?

First, as the militaries engaged in the current operation are skilled at contingency planning, informal meetings should begin at NATO and elsewhere to examine how such a process could work, what is required and who could be engaged. Similarly, civilian contingency planning for the post-war could follow a parallel process.

If Gadhafi showed no sign of giving up, these planning processes would become more serious as well as overtures to possible allies in the Muslim and Arab worlds. Keeping this secret is less of an issue. Selective leaks and the use of psychological gambits to influence or affect Gadhafi’s thought processes are part of this noose tightening process to use one of Obama’s phrases.

Of course, Gadhafi has a vote in terms of his reactions, countermoves and reprisals. If Gadhafi does have stocks of chemical weapons, he could use them. He could attempt attacks against NATO by outflanking the alliance’s military operation with terror attacks. These and other options must be examined, anticipated and understood.

All of this planning must be carefully and cunningly crafted. Whether NATO or the U.S. government is fully able to accomplish this given the politics of the alliance requiring unanimous agreement and Washington where the 2012 election along with the budget crisis dominate debate isn’t a simple matter.

Yet, we will do ourselves a grave disservice if we don’t at least consider an Operation Libyan Freedom.

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.